Hummingbirds

Purple-throated Woodstar (Calliphlox mitchellii). Tandayapa, Ecuador. March. Photographer: Peter Cavanagh

Purple-throated Woodstar (Calliphlox mitchellii). Tandayapa, Ecuador. March. Photographer: Peter Cavanagh

Hummingbird flight is unique. “Hummers”, like the Purple-throated Whitestar above, can hover perfectly, they can fly backward, upside down, at extremely high speeds, and they can turn rapidly. Their wings beat at a faster rate than any other movement among vertebrates. During hovering, hummingbird wings move forward and backward in a “figure eight”, generating lift in each direction.

Fast muscles and a mobile shoulder joint allow them to be the “top guns” of bird species. But high performance comes with a high cost and hummingbirds spend more energy per unit body weight in a day than any other species.

White-whiskered Hermit (Phaethornis yaruqui).  Milpe, Equador. March. Photographer: Peter Cavanagh

White-whiskered Hermit (Phaethornis yaruqui). Milpe, Equador. March. Photographer: Peter Cavanagh

The White-whiskered Hermit above from Ecuador is almost at the end of a backward sweep of its wings. During the movement, the bird’s body has maintained perfect positioning relative to the flower from which it is drinking nectar. This shows that the backward wing movements have generated a lift force exactly equal to the bird’s weight (to prevent it falling) but no thrust. The bird can rapidly and accurately adjust these forces to move up or down or side-to-side if the flower is moving in the wind.

LEARN MORE ABOUT HUMMINGBIRDS

KIDS QUESTION: In the museum exhibit, we asked: How did hummingbirds get their name?

The answer is: Because their wing beat is fast and it results in a “humming” sound
The rate at which hummingbirds flap their wings is often overestimated. For example, the common ruby-throated hummingbird (Archilochus colubrid) has a wing beat frequency of about 55 cycles per second.